Channel 4’s recent programme My Week as a Muslim, in which a non-Muslim woman lived with a Pakistani family for a week, was a reminder of the ongoing curiosity about Muslim life in British society. The programme was criticised for its use of “brownfacing” as the woman wore dark make-up and a niqab to appear Pakistani – highlighting the resilience of assumptions that British Muslims are non-white or somehow non-British.
This abiding curiosity about how Muslims live and what Muslims think frequently stems from enduring concerns around integration. In the past, such concerns were usually couched in the language of multiculturalism or community cohesion, but today they are often centred around the idea of “British values”. While the meaning of the term remains unclear, it saturates public life in areas as diverse as counter-radicalisation policy and education. Yet, in one recent study, around half of British adults surveyed believed Islam to be incompatible with British values.
For the last year, we have been working with Muslims across eastern England and East Anglia who have produced their own short films about British values as part of an ongoing research project. Doing so, we hoped, would tell us a little more about what the term British values means to Muslims in an often neglected region. It might also shed light on how those Muslims feel when they encounter the term in media headlines or opinion polls.
Although we’re mindful of the dangers of generalisation – and cautious that these reflections are still provisional – we have picked out three themes that recur in a number of our films and interviews with those who made them.
The term British values was often seen by our filmmakers as an elusive and ambiguous one. Some, such as Shukria from Bedford, were confident in articulating the term precisely – in her case as “having the freedom to express yourself however you want”. But many others professed to not knowing what the term means.
Haroon, a college student in Norwich, told us: “I can’t really speak on British values, because I don’t know anything about them … to me it’s a weightless word, it has no meaning to it.” Fatima, from Bedford, held a similar view: “To be honest, I don’t know, it doesn’t mean anything to me … We were never taught what British values were.”
For some, this ambiguity was even more pronounced when they reflected on whether anything is distinctively British about values such as “democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs” – the language the Home Office uses to define the term. As one of the people interviewed put it, such values “should be universal regardless – British, non-British, faith or no faith”.
Despite this ambiguity, the British Muslims we spoke to saw some similarities between British values and values associated with Islam. As one interviewee put it:
If I think about British values and I think about my faith, I think there’s a lot of common ground. And common ground for me is serving my community, looking after my neighbours, regardless of whoever they are.
The claim that a vague and ambiguous set of British values actually complements Islamic values could appear counter-intuitive. But the indistinctness of the term might actually make the idea of British values easier to square with other sets of religious or non-religious values. A desire to identify with the Britishness of these values – or to be seen by others to identify with this Britishness – could also be more important than concerns about their specific content or meaning.
There also seems to be genuine public concern among those with whom we spoke about how the term British values is used in politics and the media. Many people on this project pointed to the manipulation of the term by politicians and media commentators to serve dog-whistle politics, often in the aftermath of violent and tragic events. In the words of one anonymous participant: “Whenever there’s an attack, you have the government … start talking about [British] values.”
In this way, the term British values was seen by two of those we spoke to as a coded “warning” to specific communities, which contributed to “divisive” and “alienating” politics. These sentiments can also offer insights about how those exposed to the term within classrooms or places of worship might feel.
The next stage of our research will be to carry out a series of focus groups in East Anglia with Muslim and non-Muslim participants to dig further into the meaning of British values. Wherever that takes us it is clear that the term remains a contested and contentious one, that must be used with care by politicians, commentators, and others.